Bonnie & Clyde, and the Film Critic Who Helped Change its Fate

Violent, bloody and tonally against what Warner Bros was looking to make at the time (Jack L. Warner, for one, was not a fan), the studio originally had no plans to give the film a wide release at all. In fact, whilst it would eventually become a major box office success – playing in cinemas for months – it took Beatty threatening to sue to get the film such wide exposure in the first place.

And then there was another notable moment.

Joe Morgenstern was the film critic for Newsweek, and when he took his seat at Warner Bros’ New York screening room for a press preview, he found himself sat in proximity to Beatty himself. He confessed to being a little unnerved by having the star and the producer right next to him, adding “I felt that he was trying to peer at my notes.” Once the film had finished, he duly went back to his office, and penned a review that he himself would describe as “pissy.”

The 1960s, for context, wasn’t an era where a single film critic could make or break a film, but certainly key names in the reviewing fraternity exerted significant influence. Morgenstern’s piece for Newsweek, coming in the aftermath of several attacks from the New York Times, argued that Bonnie & Clyde was “a squalid shoot ‘em up for the moron trade.” Ouch.

But Morgenstern was unsettled. Something wasn’t sitting right, and thus on the day of release, he went with his wife to see the film again. The review wasn’t due in print until the following Monday, but already, he was having second thoughts. Seeing the film again cemented them. He sat in the midst of an audience that went crazy for the movie. It hit him hard how he’d got this one wrong. “I was not ready for the violence and kind of shrank from it,” he said of his initial reaction to the film. On second viewing, he realised “oh shit, I’ve missed the boat.” He immediately started writing a second review.

The following Monday’s Newsweek was already on the printing presses by this time, and thus the first review couldn’t be stopped. But Morgenstern persuaded his editor to let him run another piece. This was pretty much unprecedented in Newsweek, and within one week of his review running, Morgenstern had a second piece in print in the same publication where he wrote that his original review was “grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate.” He went on to rave about the film.

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